4 Models to Build and Scale a Massive Following for Athletes [Exclusive]

  Photo by Erik Lucatero on Unsplash

Photo by Erik Lucatero on Unsplash

With all the free, built-in, ongoing public exposure that athletes enjoy, you'd assume more athletes would have millions of followers.

Most athletes, however, lack a substantial digital following because they fail to give the average fan — most fans — a compelling reason to follow them. They don't consistently inspire people to say: I see myself in this athlete.

As the Internet continues to democratize the ability to become a celebrity — and more importantly, an influencer — the notion of being an athlete is no longer the same sexy, shiny object it used to be.

Whether it comes from LeBron James, the Pope, Oprah Winfrey or Cousin Sal, people yearn for content experiences that are interesting, entertaining and informative; on-demand and digital in format; with a heavy dose of human-interest attributes. And, for better or worse, it's a zero-sum game. If I'm consuming someone else's content, I can't consume an athlete's content at the same time.

Suddenly, it becomes a vicious cycle: If I'm not consuming an athlete's content, I'm less likely to engage with this athlete in the future, either because the social media algorithms will show me less of the athlete's content, or because I will (consciously and/or subconsciously) tune out the athlete's not-so-compelling content — in favor of more interesting, entertaining and informative content from other people, brands, media companies, et cetera.

But, if I engage with an athlete because his or her content is compelling, it becomes a virtuous cycle: The more I consume an athlete's content, the more the social media algorithms will show me the athlete's content, and the more I will "tune in" when the athlete publishes new content.

The result: an increase in athlete brand equity and, ultimately, a massively profitable athlete brand.

Before we dive into the four models that build substantial digital followings for athlete brands, let's start by understanding the components of a digital following.

The Components of a Digital Following

A digital following combines three buckets:

  1. Social media followers
  2. Email subscribers
  3. Website visitors


While each of these buckets isn't weighted equally, notice how social media makes up just 33 percent of an athlete's digital following. In other words, athletes who have yet to deploy a website and email marketing program are diminishing a major portion of their digital following potential.

In fact, email subscribers and website visitors tend to be more lucrative than social media followers, because they provide more fan engagement and re-engagement opportunities.

When an athlete publishes a video on Instagram, for example, only a small percentage of his or her followers will see the video because of Instagram's algorithmic filters; when an athlete sends out an email blast to his or her email list, however, every fan on the list will at least receive the email in their inbox.

Athlete branding and marketing strategies should therefore be implemented with the objective of turning fans into social media followers, social media followers into website visitors, and website visitors into email subscribers — so as to create more fan engagement and re-engagement opportunities.

The Monetary Value of a Digital Following

At The Institute for Athlete Branding and Marketing, we developed a formula that conservatively estimates the additional, scalable and in many ways passive income an athlete can generate, based on the size of his or her digital following:

Athlete Brand Results

Our digital valuation uses conservative estimates of:

  • 0.5% social media engagement
  • 30 social media posts per month
  • $0.93 cost-per-engagement
  • Monthly website visitors – 1% of an athlete's social media following
  • Email subscribers – 10% of an athlete's monthly website visitors
  • 4 emails per month
  • 20% email open rate
  • 2% email click-through rate


Building and Scaling a Massive Digital Following

Whether an athlete does or doesn't boast a substantial digital following — at least 500,000 social media followers, email subscribers and website visitors — consider the following four models to double, triple or even 10x the athlete's fanbase at scale:

1. Team Association Model

Most teams have substantial digital followings, so tapping into their audience will enable athletes to grow their following.

In order to do so, invest in producing original content experiences that creatively portray an athlete within the context of his or her current team, and in accordance with the team's marketing objectives. To ensure the team will share the content across its channels, engage in appropriate conversations with the team's marketing arm, and perhaps collaborate directly with the team's marketing people to produce a mutually beneficial content experience.

The same approach can be taken with other professional and/or amateur teams for which an athlete played in the past. Take, for example, the video below, in which JuJu Smith-Schuster creatively featured his alma mater USC, resulting in more than two million views.

In addition, athletes can produce original content experiences that strategically feature teammates who have larger followings, so as to tap into their audiences as well. JaVale McGee works this practice to a tee in his web series Parking Lot Chronicles:

2. League Association Model

Leagues also have substantial digital followings, so tapping into their audience will enable athletes to grow their following as well.

Start by engaging the league's marketing department to identify potential athlete-league content collaboration opportunities — or, at least, content experiences the league will agree to share across its channels — and execute accordingly.

In addition, athletes can produce original content experiences that strategically feature other players and influential people from around the league who have larger followings, so as to tap into their audiences too. Here's a great example from Tom Daley, who featured Nile Wilson in this video, to the tune of more than two million views:

3. Community Association Model

There are a plethora of businesses, organizations and influential individuals who reside in the city of the team for which an athlete plays — and many of them have substantial digital followings.

After you make a list of these entities and people, (1) engage them about collaborating on a potential content production, and/or (2) feature them in an athlete's content, regardless if they participate in the production of it. For the latter, here are a few content thought-starters:

  • My 10 Favorite Restaurants in [City] – blog post or podcast
  • Riding Around Town With [Influential Person] – video and podcast
  • 5 Places You Can Find Me On an Off-Day – blog post

4. Sport Association Model

By producing original content experiences that genuinely show fans their "love for the game," athletes will create stronger associations with their sport and build greater athlete brand equity at scale.

Here are a few content thought-starters:

  • Producing a day-in-the-life video of an athlete volunteering with a sport-specific organization
  • Surprising kids at a local park to play the sport with them (video)
  • Hosting an interview-style podcast that features intriguing sport-specific guests

By using the four brand association models above, against the backdrop of a content experience-driven strategy, athletes will be sure to build and scale a massively profitable personal brand.

About the Author:

Josh Hoffman is the Chief Strategy Officer at The Institute for Athlete Branding and Marketing. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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